Tuesday, July 20, 2004
It appears that the President's reported recent ultimatum to the Pakistanis -- give us bin Laden, s'il vous plait, preferably between the 26th and 28th of July, when John Kerry will be sucking up all that media attention -- has, alas, resulted in minor inconvenience for some 25,000 newly-homeless refugees:
Thousands of Afghan refugees have been forced from their homes in the border areas of Pakistan as the Pakistani Army, backed by United States intelligence and surveillance, has intensified its operations against supporters of Al Qaeda taking shelter in the mountainous region.
Some 25,000 people have poured into Afghanistan in the last few weeks from the tribal agency of South Waziristan where Pakistani forces, with American help, are battling a major concentration of foreign fighters and sympathetic local tribesmen, refugee officials said.
The Pakistani army, at the behest of the United States, has pushed into the normally autonomous tribal areas over the last five months, in an attempt to capture or kill an estimated 500 foreign fighters, and search for the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, often rumored to be sheltering in the area . . . .
United Nations and Afghan refugee officials have raised grave concerns with the Pakistani government about the refugee exodus, protesting that if there are military operations in such areas, that people at least be given adequate warning to collect their belongings and some choice as to where to go.
The scale of the problem has only recently come to light after a non-governmental organization, Tribal Liaison Office Swisspeace, interviewed 1,500 families in Paktika, the province bordering South Waziristan.
The organization has estimated that nearly 4,000 families have taken shelter in Paktika province alone. Afghan government officials say the total is closer to 5,000 families, with almost 200 more families arriving in Ghazni province, and another 200 families in Baghlan province, north of Kabul.
Officials with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are unable to travel to the province of Paktika, but they also use the figure of 24,000 to 25,000 people. Daniel Endres, acting head of that office in Afghanistan, said their ejection from Pakistan amounts to forcible repatriation. Some 200,000 Afghan refugees live in the remote border areas of Pakistan, in particularly poor and insecure conditions.
The Pakistani military has hardened its position against Afghan refugees living in the area in recent weeks, officials in Afghanistan said. Refugees have been given as little as two hours notice and their houses have been bulldozed, officials of the United Nations' refugee office said. Some have arrived with no belongings and are homeless once again, back in their native Afghanistan.
The Pakistani authorities have admitted to closing and bulldozing two refugee camps, Zarinoor 1 and Zarinoor 2, in South Waziristan. A Pakistani official in Kabul said that the government had decided to dismantle all camps within five kilometers of the border "as part of a clean-up of the area, so militant-saboteurs would have no place for asylum."